preserving mars

Dark streaks indicate the flow of water down Martian slopes. Photo from

About a week ago, NASA presented compelling evidence of flowing water on The Red Planet. The water flows foster hope that there may yet be life to discover on Mars. Scientific American discusses the  hardest part of discovering the first Martians: preventing contamination from Earth.

The problem is not exploding rockets, shrinking budgets, political gamesmanship or fickle public support—all the usual explanations spaceflight advocates offer for the generations-spanning lapse in human voyages anywhere beyond low Earth orbit. Rather, the problem is life itself—specifically, the tenacity of Earthly microbes, and the potential fragility of Martian ones. The easiest way to find life on Mars, it turns out, may be to import bacteria from Cape Canaveral—contamination that could sabotage the search for native Martians.

Certain areas of Mars are designated as “Special Regions” by the Committee on Space Research, or COSPAR, and restricted from earthly visitors. These special regions appear to have the right topography and geothermal profiles to support life. By prohibiting visitors, astronomers hope to preserve any potential extraterrestrial life. But are these designations enough to protect Martian soil and species from Earth’s most relentless invaders?

Read more at Scientific American.

do it for the snap

Dangerous selfies. Kirill Oreshkin takes selfies from the top of some of the world’s tallest buildings. Image from  The Huffington Post.

Are you a selfie afficionado? Would you do anything for the vine? More and more of us are being caught up in selfie-mania and hurting ourselves trying to get the perfect picture. Mashable reports that more people have been killed while taking selfies this year than from shark attacks… not that that is all that meaningful of a statistic. So far this year 12 people have died trying to take selfies, compared to 8 deaths from shark attacks. Many more have likely been injured. Some places have begun to ban selfie sticks to prevent sight-seers from tempting fate. So if you’d do anything for a snap, make sure you’re being safe as well.

buckyballs from outer space



Buckminsterfullerene, also known as C60 and buckyballs, are believed to cause interstellar absorption patterns that have confounded scientists for decades.

For at least 100 years scientists have been observing unknown absorption bands in outer space. These diffuse interstellar bands were of unknown origin, until just recently.

Astronomers have believed buckyballs, or fullerene to be behind the phenomena since the mid-90s. Fullerenes are molecular carbon, made of 60 carbon atoms and shaped like soccer balls or geodesic domes. The wavelengths of light that buckyballs absorbed when encased in an unreactive frozen solids were similar to the patterns observed in space. But, since they were unable to observe the molecules under space-like conditions, it was not possible to claim that they were the definite cause. Over the next 20 years, researchers have worked on observing C60 in space-like conditions. Now, John Maier has observed behavior of fullerene ions at close to absolute zero and under high vacuum.  They found spectral lines at wavelengths of 9577 and 9632 angstroms, which match the patterns seen in space. This result offers considerable evidence that the molecules are behind the bands. The research is published at Nature.


the chemistry of wine

Have you ever wondered what makes wine so good? Scientifically speaking, of course.  The team at Reactions explains the science behind the flavor profiles of different vintages.

antibiotic advances

Staph aureus

Drug resistant Staph aureus

Over on, Sara Reardon provides a brief rundown on different alternatives to traditional antibiotic treatments. These alternatives are among some of the most promising solutions to growing antibiotic resistance. Sara mentions peptides, phages, metals and gene editing techniques. Phages have been used clinically for many years especially in Eastern Europe. And metals like silver and copper have been used as antibiotics since at least the 4th century B.C. Silver in particular causes bacteria to act like zombies and kill other live bacteria after they’ve been treated.

Antibiotic peptides are commonly isolated from the skin of frogs, and also in fungi. These peptides are typically 10–50 amino acid residues long and have many cationic residues. They can act in multiple ways, but most permeabilize and disrupt cellular membranes causing bacterial contents to leak out of the cell.

Gene editing is gaining popularity as scientists makes continued improvements to CRISPR technologies.  Bacteria usually use CRISPR to develop resistance to phages and viruses, but scientists are engineering ways to use this to make bacteria attack themselves. As the technology develops, some scientists believe antibiotic CRISPR systems have the potential to be much better than traditional antibiotic treatments.

Taken as a whole, development on all these fronts signals continuing research on new antibiotics even as traditional small molecule antibiotics are becoming harder to find.

a new antibiotic


Tuberculosis bacteria

Much ink has been spilled over the lack of new antibiotics and the increase in drug resistant bacteria. But a few weeks ago, there was finally news of a breakthrough. Researchers have finally discovered a new antibiotic, teixobactin.

Teixobactin works by binding lipid precursors of the cell wall. This interference weakens the bacterial cell wall, causing the microbes to leak and die. The drug is only effective against gram-positive bacteria, like Staphylococcus aureus and M. tuberculosis, and it could help combat resistant strains that commonly cause MRSA infections. Teixobactin was active against MRSA infections in mice. It is not effective on gram-negative bacteria, like E. coli.

The method they used to discover the antibiotic is also quite interesting. Compound Interest explains:

We know bacteria produce their own antibacterial compounds, to combat other competing bacteria. However, since 99% of bacteria can’t be grown in lab conditions, this greatly limits the number of these compounds that we can investigate. The method used to discover teixobactin overcomes this, by diluting soil samples, then placing small samples containing single bacterium cells in a device they named an ‘iChip’.

The ‘iChip’ is essentially just a device with a large number of small channels, into which bacteria can be deposited. The channels are then covered with a semi-permeable membrane, which allows environmental factors which influence bacterial cell growth to diffuse across to the bacterium cells. Using this method, the researchers were able to cultivate bacteria which were not previously grown in lab conditions, as once a culture is formed it is easier to entice them to do so. The researchers isolated 25 different antibiotic compounds, of which teixobactin is the most promising.

This is potentially a giant step forward for antibiotics and antibiotic discovery.  For further reading check out the original publication. Also check out coverage by Ed Yong, Science Magazine, and Scientific American.